Is There Room for Languages for Specific Purposes in the Humanities?

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These are not the best of times for the humanities in general and foreign languages in particular.  Budget cuts are the norm on college campuses.  Universities depend on endowments for funding and when that money goes to academic programs, it funds business, ECON and STEM (see articles and stats here, here, here, here, here, and here), then those programs get the lion’s share of incoming students.  We saw BAs in the humanities decline by 10% in the three-year period 2012-2015 (source, Washington Post).  Over a similar three-year period (2013-2016), a total of 651 language programs ceased to exist on US campuses (source, MLA as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education) That doesn’t include language programs that are still in existence on campuses that eliminated language requirements and in so doing decimated the enrollments in those programs, leaving faculty struggling to attract and retain students. At the same time, 2015 saw a record high number (5,891) of PhDs awarded in humanities disciplines while the openings for tenure-track positions in the humanities continued in its precipitous fifteen-year decline (source, InsideHigherEd).

These are facts. You don’t have to like them, but you cannot pretend they don’t exist.


At the same time, there is a lot to be said for the humanities. Underemployment is much lower among humanities degree holders than among those who majored in business and related majors (source, Forbes –this trend surely due in part to the skewed admissions numbers cited above). It has always been argued effectively that students in all disciplines need the skills that come from studying the humanities–Google “why study humanities?” and you will get pages and pages of hits (for example, this and this) that emphasize that the humanities educate the whole person with critical thinking skills, the ability to analyze and synthesize, important written and verbal communication skills, and lots of “soft skills” or “executive function” skills like problem-solving, decision-making, resourcefulness, and independence.

But it’s not fair to tell students that they’re gaining those skills without explicitly talking to them about how they’re doing that and how they might apply the skills beyond the classroom and after graduation. And students know this at some level because they’re not convinced to study the humanities by the simple arguments that “humanities courses educate the whole person,” “you’ll use these life skills” and “lots of important professionals majored in humanities fields” (see “Steve Jobs studied calligraphy” and “billionaire Mark Cuban says the humanities are good“). 

We need to ask ourselves serious questions: how are we going to convince today’s college students–who have been admitted to college by claiming non-humanities academic interests and and who need to enter the workforce upon graduation either to pay back student loan debt or because the prospects of having a career in academia are so grim–that they should also study the humanities? It cannot be by telling them, “Steve Jobs studied calligraphy” or “Mark Cuban said so” and then hoping they’ll sign up for the same classes our departments have offered for literally decades.


This is the part that always seems to go unaddressed in all that has been written on the topic.

We must answer the questions that we demand our students answer on a variety of topics: why? how? How are our humanities courses tied to our students’ futures? They are not going to be college professors. We do not have to get on board with colleges turning into career development, job training / professional preparation centers. But we do have to find a way to talk to students about how what we are doing in our courses is connected to their actual, real futures.

Chances are your department needs robust undergraduate enrollments in its minor and major programs even though your department knows that you could never conscionably send all those students to the graduate programs in French studies or English literature that the major program prepares students for (because you also know it is highly likely that your graduate program is already churning out way more PhDs than the academy could ever absorb with anything close to tenure-track lines–see above).

Our courses, our major & minor programs, our departments have to change to reflect the realities of our students.  We have to face the fact that our students will need to earn money when they graduate and inevitably work outside academia. We have to be explicit with them about what our courses have to do with their post-college reality. If we reject all the students who don’t plan to engage with humanities studies in a lifelong manner, then we effectively eliminate our own jobs. 

This brings me back to my opening question: Can Languages for Specific Purposes programming attract more students to foreign languages / humanities courses?

The first step:  Needs assessment

First, ask yourself: what are your needs–as a department, program, or course instructor? Do you need to attract and retain more students to boost undergraduate enrollments? Do you need to meet student, tuition-paying parent, and administration pressure for ”real-world / readiness skills”? Do you need some kind of PhD+ for graduate students so that they go into the challenging job market with the traditional PhD plus some unique value-added skills that make them stand out against all the competition? Do you need to re-vamp an entire program? Do you need to just do enough to “get through” this pendulum swing that is so tough on the humanities? Or do you just want to be practical about administering your own courses?

Once you decide what needs you have to meet, there are a lot of options.


New programs 

Every year, more campuses expand their offerings to include languages for the professions. The field I know best is Spanish for the Professions and the program with which I am most familiar is UNC-Chapel Hill’s minor. It is an example of building a flexible program that allows the department to adapt to evolving needs.  When the minor was established more than a decade ago, it was to relieve the high demand on traditional courses from an abundance of students minoring in Spanish. The professions minor was designed around the most common majors among all those students flocking to the traditional Spanish courses–and the demand for the new minor was through the roof.  One of the required courses was an “allied” course related to the Spanish-speaking world that had to be taken outside of the Romance Studies department. As enrollments declined in the traditional courses over time, the adjustment was made to allow students to take their allied course within Romance Studies. And the next evolution can be to require that the allied course be any one of the traditional courses in the Romance Studies department.  

The University of Colorado at Boulder has a professions track in their Spanish major that includes the unique offering in Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development as well as interdisciplinary programs in business and engineering. At the University of Alabama Birmingham, students can major in applied professional Spanish. The program is a wonderful illustration of blending traditional courses with applied professional courses. Georgia Southern’s certificate program starts at the intermediate (200) level, Arizona State University’s certificate program has a required Spanish in U.S. Professional Communities course, and the University of Florida’s certificate program in Spanish for the professions includes one-credit courses on rotating special topics such as coffee culture, soccer, drug wars, and popular music.

There are as many ways to design programs as there are campuses willing to do so.

New courses

Without creating entire programs, it is possible to attract students interested in the professions by adding several courses that would serve their needs (service-learning, business, medicine, journalism, law, social justice, career preparation / college-to-career transition etc.).

Duke University offers a French course on “Business and Culture in the Francophone World” as well as various interdisciplinary courses cross listed with programs such as theater, political science, and economics.  

To be effective, those courses should count for something–perhaps serving as a mix-and-match with traditional courses so that students still have to populate the traditional minor and major courses while pursuing their “specific purposes” studies.

One off courses or special sections of multi-section courses 

One-off courses in languages for the professions abound–for example, the ubiquitous business Spanish class that is on the books on many college campuses.  Depending on student demand and faculty willingness, you can create these one-off courses that can serve to initially attract students.  In high-demand areas like business Spanish, there are established textbooks (Éxito comercial) and curricula. Note that to attract students, it helps if these courses “count” towards a program of study (and aren’t just electives).

Another option is to develop special sections of multi-section courses. This is particularly effective at the beginning and intermediate levels and can be used to attract students to continued study at the minor or major level (though the minor and major then have to offer something appealing to that students population).  

At the University of Chicago students can take a special section of the final course in the second-year sequence that is “Spanish of the Professions.” The section is offered at the same time as one of the other traditional sections so that students can easily transfer in and out during the first week of classes. Students in the special section keep up with the vocabulary, grammar, and chapter themes of the intermediate textbook and take the same tests as students in the other sections (this to ensure they are equally prepared to go on to the next course). But instead of doing extra literary readings and writing traditional academic essays, students in the special section explore their own area of professional interest, regularly reading, listening, or watching content, then blogging about it and occasionally presenting on it in class. At the same time, they develop a course-long project investigating the resources available for Spanish-speakers in their professional area of interest in the geographic regions where they plan to live and work–with the goal of identifying an unmet niche that they could fill.

Weave professional skills that every employee in every workplace needs into already-existing courses and programs

NETWORKING A lot of the workplace skills that all of our students will need regardless of chosen profession can be layered on to what we are already doing everyday in language courses, where classes are small in size, students work in pairs and groups often, and get to know each other. The content of language classes is often the same “small talk” that is common at networking events: your name, where you’re from, what you do, your interests.

To tweak this work that we’re already doing for professional networking, just make sure students know the importance of:

1- finding out names, remembering names, and using names (they should know how to say, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten your name. I’m ___? What’s your name again?” in at least two languages).

2- professional body language: warm and open, a natural smile, eye contact, and the offer of a handshake (in US culture–teach this also as appropriate to target culture). Avoid crossed arms or negative facial expressions that are often a manifestation of nervousness, but can come across as being cold, unreceptive, and uninterested. This is the activity that can seem a bit silly to practice in a language class–but it’s a low stakes environment that will get students over the learning curve before they are in high stakes environments like job fairs and professional interviewers (where many of their peers will still be sheepish and awkward about eye contact and shaking hands).

3- listening carefully to what others say and asking specific follow-up questions. The goal is to find out what you have in common so that you can follow up later with a link, article, event, invitation, etc. (and thus build those professional relationships over the long term). This can be a good goal for out-of-class oral exams: “have a natural, authentic conversation” that ends when the two parties have identified something new that that have in common.

Note that “networking” is not asking for favors, nor is it all about icky self-promotion. It is about building long-term professional relationships over an entire career. Our professional conferences are three-day long networking event–otherwise, we could just post our ideas to each other electronically and not bother with the physical gathering.

Here is a link to some actual class activities I have used.

WRITTEN AND VERBAL COMMUNICATION SKILLS. The humanities are all about written and verbal communication skills. And we rightfully tout that in defense of the humanities. However, we usually do not talk to students about how all those skills might translate to their professional lives after graduation.  What are we preparing them to do? Because they won’t have to write essays in most workplaces. They’ll have to write memos, emails, agendas, reports.

We can use this kind of professional writing to our advantage; for example, by using email writing to streamline the administration of our courses. It only takes a couple minutes to train students to write professional emails that are thorough, clear, and concise. See a specific first-day-of-class activity here, in which students take responsibility for consulting course documents and contacting tech support to answer their questions and solve their problems–thus saving the instructor various emails from each student throughout the course with questions like, “where is your office?” “how much is the midterm exam worth?” “I can’t access the textbook publishers online quizzes–what should I do?”

At the same time, email writing can help students develop transcultural competence by putting themselves in the role of the recipient of the emails they receive and seeing their own emails as the other might. See my full post on the subject here. All of this improves the administration of our own courses while also getting at some of the most challenging work of language education (transcultural competence). Students develop skills they will need in the workplace–they will tell you how much they use professional email writing in their L1 and L2 –and how well it is received. And employers always say they want independent, resourceful, problem-solving employees. It’s a win-win-win.

GATEKEEPING. Gatekeeping is fundamentally about access. If you can take down a correctly-spelled name and accurate phone number or email in your L2 so that a more fluency speaker can call that person back, you have granted access where it otherwise would have been passively denied. That is an important skill to have anytime, but especially when dealing with vulnerable, language-minority, immigrant communities. I’ve posted on this before.

In learning to leave and take basic messages, students are also getting age-appropriate practice with the building blocks of language (the ABC’s and 1-2-3’s often get short shrift in language education, in part because of seeming lack of age-appropriate practice material).

Students can quickly learn how to take control of the conversation to get and give information by asking, “how do you spell that?”, “one digit at a time, please,” “I got the first name; what’s the last name?”, “I’m going to repeat that back to you; is this correct…?” They learn to avoid global requests for repetition (“what?” “repeat”) that leaves them in “deer in the headlights” mode. I have also posted on this before.

These are just a few examples; you can also use follow up from group work as a way to practice professional presentations and build digital literacy skills into your courses.

Why not tweak content that is fundamental to what we are already doing in our language courses and apply it to those professional skills that every employee in every workplace needs while also streamlining the administration of our own courses? We need to change, but it can be additive; we don’t have to give up anything we’re already doing.  

LearHeadShot2018Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in  job search documents, interview preparation, and academic documents. She is the author of “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses” from Georgetown University Press.  For help customizing your job application documents and navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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